The Lord Chancellor is one of the oldest offices in parliamentary history, thought to be around 1400 years old. For most of its history, the role combined legislative, executive and judicial functions and was one of the most important political offices in the country. The role of Lord Chancellor was significantly reformed in 2005 to separate these functions.
The office of the Lord Chancellor originated as secretary to the medieval Monarchs of England, with responsibility for the supervision, preparation and dispatch of the King's letters. This entailed the use of the Sovereign's seal, the Great Seal of the Realm, which came to symbolise the office.
Over time, the Lord Chancellor took on further administrative and judicial functions on behalf of the Sovereign. For example, the Lord Chancellor would preside over Parliament when the Monarch was not personally available. By the 13th century, the Lord Chancellor had become in effect, the most senior judge in the land apart from the King himself.
This judicial role was as part of the Court of Chancery, which had discretion to mitigate the harsh effects of rulings emanating from common law courts. Therefore, the Lord Chancellor was described as 'Keeper of the Royal Conscience'. The Lord Chancellor was also Speaker of the House of Lords, and presided over their proceedings from the Woolsack.
By the end of the 19th century, the office of Lord Chancellor began to acquire a permanent administrative staff, which in time developed into a government department.
The office of the Lord Chancellor acquired a significant range of new responsibilities for the higher courts in England and Wales when the Courts Act 1971 came into force in 1972. Other responsibilities have been added progressively over the decades, including those for criminal legal aid and the administration of a number of tribunals.